Heading east on Sunset the Ferrari picks up speed, snaking in and out of the lanes of traffic with a throaty growl. At the wheel, James Coburn looks relaxed and happy. As well he might be, for this car, the magnificent 308 GTS, is his pride and joy.

It is, you can't help thinking, a car designed for happier times; for belting down the Italian autostradas at sunup, or hugging the narrow road that winds its way around Lake Como. Held captive by speed limits and freeway jams, the car actually seems melancholy.

"Isn't it great?" Coburn says, judging his distance neatly and leaving behind a stately line of orderly cars. "I've had maybe 10 of them. And I've still got the first one I ever bought."

He arrives at a place for coffee and prowls in. People glance at him, for his mix-master haircut, seamed face and tall stalk of a body make him instantly recognizable.

He is an interesting, introspective fellow, Coburn; a man who has spent much time studying the various Eastern philosophies and religions on the grounds that "We must be here for some reason -- not just to lie in the sun."

For relaxation he likes to beat Oriental gongs and to play the flute.

"I first began to question things when I was in the Army in Germany," he says. "I was sitting on a park bench one day and there was this old German looking at a tree. He asked me if I'd ever talked to trees. I said no, I hadn't. Had he? Oh, yes, he said. What do you ask them? I said. Oh, I never ask them questions, he said. Well, that started me thinking. The idea of talking to trees and sharing my experience with something other than humans made my life seem insignificant on the one hand, and more significant on the other."

Having traveled many paths, Coburn is now, at the age of 50, starting out on anoter. His 18-year marriage broke up not long ago, and he moved out of the magnificent house he and his wife Beverly shared. It was, by general agreement, one of the most beautiful homes in town, filled with art treasures, paintings and bric-a-brac that they had collected during the years they were together.

Yet when Coburn moved out he took only his gongs, a couple of statues, some bronzes, his clothes and his flute.

"The pieces we had all belonged to the setting of that house," he says. "It would have been unthinkable to disturb them. So I left them there. Anyway, I know they're in good hands and will be appreciated."

That seems a highly commendable -- if unusal -- attitude.

"Well, not everyone thought so. My lawyers and accountants thought I was crazy. But as I say, those things belonged there. Anyway, I don't believe in clinging to the past. I want to devote my energies to the moment. And right now I'm putting a new house together in Sherman Oaks. It'll never be like the other house, of course; that was a masterpiece. This one could have been built by anyone."

Helping him settle into his new abode is his girlfriend, the tiny English singer Lynsey de Paul, who has moved here from London to continue her career.

She is talented, and together they have written two songs -- "Losing the Blues" and "Melancholy Melon." The first is included in an album of hers soon to be released in Europe and entitled, appropriately enough, "Hollywood Roomance."

"I was tootling on my flute one day when Lynsey said: 'That's nice' -- so we got a little melody going," he says. "It's the first time I've done it. I really enjoyed it."

He spends a lot of time tootling on his flute. He always takes it with him on film locations. In fact he takes it with him almost everywhere.

"Obviously I can't carry my gongs around," he says. "So I take the flute. I find it breaks down all the crystalized anxiety that forms in your consciousness. For me it's been like discovering the secret of longevity.

"Nothing in the world wases frustration like beating a going," he says. "And you can learn a lot about people from the way they do it. Some take a great swipe at it; others bash away mercilessly; some strike it quite gently."

Playing the flute and beating gongs are happy pursuits. But they do not pay the rent. Nor do they buy Ferraris.

So Coburn works. Last year he made "Firepower" with Sophia Loren. Now he has just finished "Goldengirl" with newcomer Susan Anton. Not surprisingly, with a couple of Ferraris to support, Coburn is on the side of actors when it comes to the money they command.

"We're worth every penny we get," he says. "Who do they think should get it? Those who make the film? Or those who don't make it but stand around at Cannes selling it?

"They made headlines the Other day out of the money Steve McQueen will earn from doing "Taipan.' But listen, he's worth every cent of that at the box office and they know it."